No immediate damage has been reported on the Nellis training complex or at the Tonopah Test Range, following a magnitude 6.5 earthquake less than 30 miles from Tonopah, a spokesperson at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. said May 15. The temblor was followed by a series of strong aftershocks throughout the area.
“All major systems and facilities on the Nevada Test and Training Range remain fully operational and initial assessments show no damage resulting from this morning’s earthquake,” the spokesperson said. When asked if the F-117 stealth attack aircraft in storage and occasionally flown at Tonopah had been affected, she said she was unable to provide an answer.
Assessment teams and structural engineers will fan out across the sprawling, 2.9 million-acre test and exercise range over the next few days to inspect structures to determine if any unreported damage has occurred, she said. Numerous test, threat-simulation, and data-collection sites on the range are not regularly manned.
The initial earthquake occurred around 4 a.m. on May 15, at about the midpoint between Las Vegas and Reno, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was followed by nearly 80 aftershocks in the area, some as powerful as 5.1 on the Richter scale.
The Nevada Department of Transportation said that sections of Highway 95 had been damaged, and warned drivers to seek alternative routes. Highway 95 skirts the western edge of the test range and is the most direct route between Las Vegas, Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, and Tonopah.
The Nellis complex provides “flexible, realistic, and multidimensional battlespace in which to test weapons systems, develop tactics, and conduct advanced training in support of U.S. national interests,” the spokeswoman said.
The F-117 fleet was operated in secret from Tonopah from 1984 to 1988, when the existence of the stealth attack jet was revealed. After highly successful combat operations in Iraq and the Balkans, the type was withdrawn from operational service in 2008, but by law, the fleet is maintained in “flyable storage,” and examples must be flown occasionally to preserve the Air Force’s proficiency with the jet. The fleet of about 55 airplanes is stored in the hangars at Tonopah from which they once operated.
Tonopah is also known to have served as a base for the “Red Eagles,” a unit which operates Russian and other adversary aircraft for training of and evaluation by USAF pilots.